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25th May 2017, Ulm, Germany

Robotic systems enable fast, reliable test results

The use of robotics to eliminate human error and enhance productivity, without sacrificing accuracy, is a growing trend in materials testing, David Phillips, VP Corporate Marketing at Zwick/Roell tells Amanda Jacob.

Inside Composites: How do automated and robotic testing systems work, and what are their benefits?

David Phillips: There are varying levels of automation, from rather simple specimen handling platforms through to turnkey automated platforms that can operate unattended for extended periods of time. Automated platforms are able to pre-condition test specimens, load them, perform a test, sort or discard the tested specimen and repeat the process. In automated systems a manipulator or robotic arm loads the test specimens into the machine and ensures that they are correctly aligned in the test fixture every time.

David Phillips, VP Corporate Marketing, Zwick/ Roell.

Standardising the way the specimen is handled helps to improve the repeatability and reproducibility of the test results because every human operator, regardless of how careful they are, will bring some variability into the test sequence. More and more companies manufacture their products and components at different sites around the world, and it’s vital that the quality of the product at each site is consistent whether it is manufactured in the US or in China. Achieving reliable test results with data obtained at different locations is a key issue in today’s materials testing world.

The Zwick roboTest testing system can be configured to support customer needs.

A robotic testing machine can also enable testing programmes to be completed faster, since the test machine can be used during times when it was previously idle (such as overnight), thus increasing the rate of utilisation. The operator is also free to focus on other tasks, such as specimen preparation. Speeding up lengthy, repetitive testing campaigns required for development and qualification of new materials is a huge benefit to companies under increasing pressure to bring products to market faster.

Robotic systems can reduce testing costs per specimen due to substantial gains in throughput, particularly those achieved through 24/7 or near 24/7 operation. Depending on the specimen volume, the initial investment usually pays off within 1-2 years.

IC: Which industries are adopting automated testing?

DP: Zwick has been engineering automated testing systems for 35 years. Our roboTest product line offers automated solutions for tensile, flexure, compression, impact and hardness tests. We now have more than 500 automated systems in operation around the world and we’ve developed solutions for many different applications in the medical, steel, plastics and other industries. One example from the steel industry involves automated testing of cold-rolled specimens on a 24/7 basis. The customer requires the utmost accuracy in measurement with r- and n-values as primary determinants of product quality. The measurements made by this automated testing machine directly influence release to ship processes, making it a crucial component of their quality control initiatives.

To date, there are few robotic testing facilities in the composites industry, but Hexcel was an early adopter, purchasing a roboTest system in the 1980s. This was used for both tensile testing and flexure testing on composite specimens, with the objectives of improving the consistency of the test results and speeding up testing throughput. The system was used for both R&D work and routine quality control tests and was still operating after about 20 years, when Hexcel decided to purchase an upgraded system from Zwick/Roell. The two new automated systems had additional functionality to meet customer demand for more extreme environmental testing, as well as an increased number of different specimen types and shapes. The Zwick systems installed at Hexcel's Duxford, UK, site can carry out tensile and flexural tests inside a temperature chamber operating between -80°C and +300°C for tensile tests and 23°C to 300°C on flexure tests.

Video: Automated bending test on composite materials.

IC: How does Zwick view the future challenges facing the materials testing industry?

DP: Our ongoing focus is on providing solutions that guarantee accurate, repeatable, reproducible and traceable test results. We maintain an active dialogue with our customers around the world to ensure the new systems and solutions we develop support them and their goals for achieving consistently reliable test results.

As the pace of business intensifies and as our customers strive to increase productivity levels, and subsequently, throughput levels in the test lab, we offer a range of testing machines and support services to address their needs. Our third generation testing software, testXpert III, is a workflow-based software designed to keep training time to a minimum and make testing efficient and reliable.

TestXpert III software logs all test- and system-relevant actions and settings to ensure full traceability of test results.

Industry 4.0 is anticipated to drive the adoption of digitisation in manufacturing facilities. Digitisation will influence demand for information and will likely impact business processes. We anticipate that this will also influence quality initiatives. Our line of roboTest automated testing machines offers an optional bar code scanner to document testing at the production lot level. Our systems are also equipped to easily process inputs from external channels, making them ready for the changes that may result from Industry 4.0 programmes in manufacturing.

New-generation information technologies such as the Internet of Things, cloud computing, big data, robotics and 3D printing will open up new opportunities for industry to become more efficient, to improve processes and to develop innovative products and services, but there will always be a need to mechanically test materials and components, and of course the finished product. The evolution of new materials and products will continue to challenge us to provide innovative testing solutions. 

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